Women have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer during their lives, and the disease is one of the most commonly diagnosed forms of cancer, second only to lung cancer. Promptly seeking care from your doctor for possible signs of breast cancer may lead to early detection of the disease and better treatment outcomes.

Does breast cancer always cause symptoms?

Breast cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms. Some women don’t develop any noticeable signs of breast cancer until the disease reaches an advanced stage. That’s why self monitoring and self breast exams aren’t effective cancer screening tools on their own. 

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force advises women aged 50 to 74 at average risk for breast cancer to get mammograms once every two years and that women aged 40 to 49 at average risk should talk to their doctors about whether earlier screening is likely to benefit them.

What are the 12 signs of breast cancer?

The Know Your Lemons Campaign for breast cancer awareness has established a list of 12 signs of breast cancer. They include hard lumps, thick areas, dimples, nipple crust redness or warmth, new fluid, skin sores, bumps, sunken nipple, growing veins, changes in size and shape and orange peel skin.

Hard lump

Hard lumps are the most common signs of breast cancer that women detect on their own. Normally, lumps feel hard and can’t be moved, and they vary in shape and size. Lumps in the breast often don’t prove to be cancerous. Fluid-filled cysts can cause lumps in the breast. In addition, hormone changes that occur during the menstrual cycle can cause noncancerous lumps called fibroadenoma in adolescents and women in their 20s and 30s.

Thickening

If cancer cells block the circulation of blood or fluids through the breast, or a tumor is growing near the skin, one area of your breast may seem thicker, denser or firmer than the rest. Sometimes, breastfeeding and hormonal changes related to menstruation can cause similar symptoms, but if thickening persists or worsens over the time, it could be a sign of breast cancer.

Dimpling

It’s normal to develop a dimple in your breast due to clothing, your bra, your bedding or something else digging into your skin. However, if you notice a persistent dimple in the same place, it could be an indication of breast cancer. Dimpling occurs when a tumor tugs the skin inward.

Nipple crust

Breastfeeding, dry skin and eczema can cause the nipples to develop a rough or crusty appearance. When crust persists despite the use of moisturizers or doesn’t resolve on its own, it may be an indication of Paget’s disease, which occurs when cancer spreads to the nipple.

Redness or warmth

Redness and warmth are general signs of infection and inflammation that can be caused by breastfeeding, eczema  or more serious problems like a breast infection or inflammatory breast cancer. Warmth and redness caused by inflammatory breast cancer occur when cancer obstructs the movement of lymphatic fluid through the breast.

New fluid

Nipple discharge is often harmless. It can happen due to normal breast development in adolescents, cysts, pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, it may also happen due an infection that requires treatment or due to breast cancer. If you’re an adult woman who is not pregnant or breastfeeding, and you notice any type of nipple discharge, talk to your doctor.

Skin sores

If breast cancer begins to break down the skin, open wounds may form on the breast. Normally, by the time this happens, other symptoms are present, such as a hard lump. Sores can also be caused by infections of the breast or severe irritation due to breastfeeding.

Bumps

A cancerous lump may form on the surface of the breast, causing a visible bump. However, many bumps are not cancerous. They can form due to benign cysts, hormone-related fibroadenomas and even from scar tissue following an injury to the breast.

Sunken nipple

Some women naturally have sunken or inverted nipples throughout their whole lives. However, flattening, sinking or turning of nipples could be a sign of a tumor developing underneath the nipple.

Growing vein

It’s normal for veins to appear more visible due to age and in response to weight gain, breastfeeding and some medical conditions. In rare cases, the flow of blood to cancerous tumors in the breast may cause veins to become very pronounced or to seem to rapidly grow and become more prominent.

Changes in size and shape

Breasts can change throughout your life, and most women’s breasts aren’t identical to one another. However, sudden changes in the size or shape of your breast— like swelling, flattening or drooping — that don’t resolve over the course of your menstrual cycle could be a sign of breast cancer.

Orange peel skin

Orange peel skin is the common term for a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. It refers to skin on the breast that is covered with little dimples like those on the surface of an orange. The symptom occurs when cancer causes the breast to swell so much that the skin bulges around the hair follicles.

What are early breast cancer symptoms?

Hard lumps are the most common symptom of breast cancer, and they’re what women who have the disease tend to notice first. However, some women never experience any breast cancer symptoms and instead learn they have breast cancer through breast cancer screening tests like a mammogram.

How does cancer in the breast usually feel?

A cancerous hard lump in the breast may feel like a lemon seed or a pit. Normally, the lump won’t move as you feel your breast. Also, lumps caused by breast cancer normally do not change in size or disappear during your menstrual period.

It’s not possible to know whether a lump in the breast is cancerous just by feeling it. If you find a lump in your breast tissue, notify your doctor. You may need to undergo a mammogram or other diagnostic testing to determine if the lump is cancerous.

What should I do if I experience signs of breast cancer?

If you experience any signs of breast cancer, let your primary care doctor know. If you don’t have a doctor, schedule an appointment with a health care provider in your local area. An examination and diagnostic testing will be performed to find out whether the symptoms are due to cancer or another condition. Remember there is also a chance that what you’re experiencing is not a sign of a serious medical problem, so you shouldn’t let fear or anxiety prevent you from seeking care.

What tests might be done if I have signs of breast cancer?

If you have one or more signs of breast cancer, your doctor will likely perform a clinical breast exam and recommend further testing, which may include a mammogram, biopsy, ultrasound, MRI or blood tests.

Clinical breast exam

Normally, the doctor’s first step will be to visually examine and feel your breasts to assess your symptoms. In some cases, you may not need further testing, but often other tests will be necessary to determine whether you have breast cancer.

Biopsy

A biopsy is a diagnostic test that involves taking a sample of breast tissue or fluid. The collected sample is sent to a laboratory and then analyzed under a microscope to look for the presence of cancerous cells. Many biopsies are performed with a needle. An ultrasound or other imaging technology may be used to guide the needle. In some cases, a surgeon may need to cut into the breast tissue to obtain a sample, but this type of biopsy is less common.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an imaging test performed on the breast to look for tumors and other abnormalities. During a mammogram, your breasts are compressed between two metal plates for approximately 20 to 30 seconds while an x-ray machine takes pictures. Mammograms done routinely to check for cancer are called screening mammograms, while those performed to investigate signs of cancer are known as diagnostic mammograms.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound is an imaging test that involves using sound waves transmitted into the body via a device called a transducer to inspect and photograph the breast tissue. Ultrasounds may be performed along with a mammogram or biopsy to diagnose breast cancer.

MRI

A magnetic resonance imaging testing, or MRI, is an imaging test that uses radio waves and magnets to produce pictures of structures in the body. If you are experiencing signs of breast cancer, your doctor may order an MRI to get detailed images of your breast that a mammogram may not be able to detect.

Blood tests

Your doctor may order blood work if you notice signs of breast cancer. A complete blood count, or CBC, test may be used to check your white blood cell, red blood cell and platelet counts and to assess the size and maturity of your blood cells. 

If you have breast cancer, your doctor may order tumor marker tests to check for levels of certain substances produced by cancerous cells. Monitoring changes in these levels is one of the ways that your doctor can assess how well treatment is working.

Benefit from Forward’s cancer prevention and treatment program

Forward’s doctor-led Cancer Prevention program includes genetic testing, blood work and screening tests for breast cancer as well as the other most common cancers in women: colorectal, skin and lung. Using the information gathered during our in-depth analysis and examination, we create a customized lifestyle change plan and support you to help you make positive changes that may reduce your risk of developing breast cancer and other common cancers in the future.

With Forward, you gain 24/7 access to your long-term doctor and can benefit from in-person and remote visits, paying one flat monthly membership fee. We deliver care independent of insurance, so you won’t have to worry about copays and coinsurance to seek advice about signs of breast cancer or any other health concerns that you have.

No long waits. No surprise bills. No copays — ever.

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